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Microsoft expands tech training programs

How will the software giant prep students for tech careers and recruit Windows users at the same time? Welcome to the IT Academy.

Microsoft on Wednesday added yet another way to recruit Windows users: A program to train students in high schools, vocational schools and two- and four-year colleges to work with the software maker's latest technology.

Dubbed IT Academy, the program is billed as a way to prepare students for careers in high tech. While the program is expected to help schools train students for technology jobs, Microsoft also benefits by adding yet another tool in its recruitment arsenal. As it does with software developer programs, which offer tools and training for creating applications that run on Windows operating systems, Microsoft will be able to generate more interest in its products.

Microsoft's ambitious training program underscores the increasing importance of leveraging school programs to maintain market share and public awareness, analysts say. For years, Apple Computer used its near lock on system and software sales to elementary and high schools as a way of keeping up interest in Macs.

"Microsoft has been offering certification programs for its products through vocational schools for years," said Technology Business Research analyst Tim Deal. "It's a very scary prospect that Microsoft can expand its dominion even more into high schools, where the platforms have been fairly agnostic for the most part. Still, I think they're already using Microsoft products, so I don't think that Microsoft is anything new to them."

IT Academy evolved from Microsoft's authorized academic training provider (AATP) program, which started in 1994.

Microsoft revamped the older program mainly because schools wanted "faculty training and early access to the newest technologies," said Diana Carew, Microsoft's program manager of Workforce Development and Community College Relations for the Education Solutions Group. "It takes them typically about 18 months to integrate a new technology into their curriculum, so it's really important (that) through our program, we offer them beta testing opportunities and early training for the faculty, so that they can shorten that time span."

Schools subscribing to IT Academy get access to materials for training students to be technicians and technology managers and receive the latest Microsoft products, including Windows XP and .Net products. But Microsoft does not provide training in competing or non-Microsoft technologies.

Yes, they are just trained in Microsoft products, Carew said. "However, the schools do have the freedom to develop their curriculum, so there are soft skills in the program, so that it's not just product-focused."

Microsoft is offering the program in two levels, costing either $1,500 or $5,000 annually. The program runs from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. All accredited U.S. or Canadian high schools or colleges are eligible to participate in the first program, but the lower-level one is only available to high schools.

Both levels offer a variety of online training tools, including a private Web site with chat and other interactive features. For training purposes, participants also receive 30 software product licenses, or 100 licenses in the case of the higher-level option. Higher-level participants receive other benefits, including online technical support classes and four onsite visits, access to Microsoft's online technical information, and opportunities to participate in beta programs.

The lower-level option provides either five days of instructor-led Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) training or seven online courses to one faculty member. The higher-level option extends the training to two faculty members. Instructor training is offered in 14 locations in the United States and two in Canada.

Typically, the MCSE course is a long one, but Carew said the five-day training or seven online courses would be enough for most faculty instructors to pass the certification exams.

"It's training on steroids, because we really wanted to do something that was meaningful for faculty," she said.

But there is a hidden price: The cost of the tests is not included with the IT Academy fee. Schools must pay for the tests separately. To teach, faculty must at least pass the Microsoft Certified Professional (MCP) exam, but many students looking to receive the heftier MCSE certificate might expect the same certification from their teachers.

"The MCP is one exam, and for the MCSE, I believe it's seven" separate tests, said Carew, who defended the decision to charge separately for the exams. "There is an academic discount...This is a professional credential the (faculty members) will realize the benefits of in their entire career. It's a real benefit to them."